O'er better waves to speed her rapid course
The light bark of my genius lifts the sail,
Well pleas'd to leave so cruel sea behind;
And of that second region will I sing,
In which the human spirit from sinful blot
Is purg'd, and for ascent to Heaven prepares.
Here, O ye hallow'd Nine! for in your train
I follow, here the deadened strain revive;
Nor let Calliope refuse to sound
A somewhat higher song, of that loud tone,
Which when the wretched birds of chattering note
Had heard, they of forgiveness lost all hope.
Summary: In writing a poem about Purgatory, Dante faced a number of significant challenges. Purgatory is, as it were, the Holy Saturday of the afterlife; it is not that it is unimportant, but by its very nature it is preparatory to, and therefore dwarfed by, something infinitely more important. That there is some kind of purification in the afterlife is implicit in intercession for the dead, but the theology of it is not particularly precise or developed, and was less so in Dante's day. Thomas Aquinas, who is Dante's usual go-to for theological guidance, says almost nothing about it, and what he does say is both minimal and early. Fewer artistic conventions had been developed for it than for Hell or Heaven; Dante cannot draw from any sort of extensive ready-made iconography. The tradition yielded very little more than general principles: it is purification, a penitential state but of satispassion and not (as our penitential practices are) satisfaction, the patient Church receiving our prayers and waiting to be made pure for Heaven. The Council of Florence had not yet clarified the relation between Latin and Greek doctrines. St. Catherine of Genoa had not yet written her visions.
Thus Dante's imagining of Purgatory gets a great deal of credit for originality; he was starting almost from scratch and trying to write a poem fit to stand with poems about Hell and Heaven, which had superabundant materials on which to draw. But as is often the case with real artistic originality -- and as Dante himself would certainly have thought -- the originality and novelty all has to stem from faithfulness to the root ideas. Dante is original not so much in the sense of making things up as in the sense of working systematically and rationally through a territory that had hardly been scored before. And I think we can identify fairly easily the basic principle on which he worked, although one might argue about the precise formulation of it. It is, I suggest, something along these lines: Purgatory is the completion of the penitential work of the Church as we know it. In a sense, the entire mountain of Purgatory is a church created by God to serve as the sacred space for the liturgy that prepares souls for the Communion of which Eucharistic communion is just a sign.
Purgatory is on earth, in the antipodes, and Dante emphasizes this a lot. It serves as a sort of mirror image of the work of the Church in the world on our mortal side of the globe; except that this image is intended to describe something more perfect than our failure-ridden and flawed work can attain. But, although the penitential life of Purgatory is more perfect, it is not fundamentally different. Everything achieved in Purgatory by patiently enduring, could have been achieved in life by active penitential practice. Purgatory is just a matter of finishing what we, foolish mortals with bad priorities, left unfinished; it is a matter of coming to live the life of the Beatitudes, which we were already called to do in mortal life.
Commentators often remark on the originality of what they call 'Ante-Purgatory', the area that is not quite Purgatory in which the excommunicated and the lately repentance congregate and wait before being allowed in. It makes sense as a reflection of the Church: in life, those delaying penitence tried to linger outside due to desires for other things, deferring repentance as long as possible; in Purgatory, they must endure an equivalent lingering-outside before fulfilling their desire to continue inward, thereby sharpening their desire for the repentance they must undergo.
It is also noticeable that Purgatory is filled with art. Dante as he goes his way through the Divine Comedy tends to pay special attention to the arts, especially his own field of poetry, but to a very remarkable degree it is a primary focus of the Purgatorio, perhaps second only to repentance itself. We are met with hymns from the very beginning. On the first terrace, in which the twisted love of pride is untwisted, we see engravings on the wall so perfect that they seem life-like, depicting examples of humility, and similar engravings on the floor depicting examples of pride. On the second terrace, devoted to envy, we have voices proclaiming fragments of stories. On the third terrace, dramatic visions before the imagination give examples of gentleness and wrath. On the fourth terrace, we have more shouted stories, concerning sloth and envy, and recitations of prayers reflecting on the fifth, reflecting on examples of avarice and prodigality. The fruit trees on the sixth terrace speak of gluttony; the penitents themselves allude to examples of lust as they walk the fires of the seventh terrace. What meets Dante in the earthly paradise is an elaborate and lush mix of tableau, pageant, and mystery play.
But art is not only pervasive, it is central. From Canto XXI, in which Dante and Vergil meet Statius, to Canto XXVI, when they meet Arnaut Daniel, there is a sort of convention of poets going on, discussing issues relevant to poetry. Statius praises Vergil and then, of course, is delighted to meet him; opponents of the 'sweet new style' concede Dante's excellence in it; Dante meets his influences. But I think there is even more going on here. The central cantos speak of free will and love. Love, of course, is the ultimate creative force in the Comedy, and precisely the distinction between Hell and Purgatory is that love in Hell is fake, and all love in Purgatory is genuine. The damned get what they desire, and shriek because it is sterile agony; the patient endure penalties as severe, and yet they sing, because they love justice, and, perhaps, even more, they love love. All vices are love twisted; all virtues are love rightly ordered. And, of course, the free creativity of love is the foundation of the self-discipline of art as well as the self-discipline of repentance; and the purpose of art, for Dante the ultimate love poet, is to uphold true and genuine love.
Art and penitential practice are thus allied, or, rather, intermingled, in Purgatory, as they are (albeit less perfectly) in the sacred art of the Church Militant. But it is not simply sacred art that is in view. Dante's devotion to Vergil is, if anything, even more intense in Purgatory than it was in Hell; and, more than this, we see in the meeting with Statius the essential idea that Vergil, by his excellence in poetry, prepared the way for the salvation of Statius's soul. The penitential Church presented by Dante is a thoroughly artistic Church; and it draws from all the art in the universe to turn it to its rightful end, the Love that moves the stars. Repentance is a restoration of love to its proper character; but love is inherently creative. A repentant Church is an artistic Church. It could not even stop itself from being so. And, likewise, art that has not been turned aside, but expresses well and clearly that love which creates, is morally good for us, an aid to repentance. The penitent face their sufferings singing; they are upheld and aided in their self-discipline by the visual arts; they re-learn what they should be through story.
One other striking thing about the Purgatorio is that Dante engages in self-critique. His forehead is carved with all of the vices. He regards himself as one of the greatest poets of all time, but he recognizes that this is a possible problem of pride that requires repentance. And, of course, when he gets to the terrestrial paradise and sees the splendid Beatrice, he is treated to a sharp and unrelenting lecture on his bad priorities -- and indeed, she as much as says at one point that he was so far gone that she got permission to have him see hell in the hope of saving him. Dante in Hell is an observer; Dante in Purgatory must do as the penitent must, and undo his disorders before he can see Heaven.
Favorite Passage: There are a number of good ones, but this, the prayer of the penitent proud from Canto XI, is particularly memorable:
"O thou Almighty Father, who dost make
The heavens thy dwelling, not in bounds confin'd,
But that with love intenser there thou view'st
Thy primal effluence, hallow'd be thy name:
Join each created being to extol
Thy might, for worthy humblest thanks and praise
Is thy blest Spirit. May thy kingdom's peace
Come unto us; for we, unless it come,
With all our striving thither tend in vain.
As of their will the angels unto thee
Tender meet sacrifice, circling thy throne
With loud hosannas, so of theirs be done
By saintly men on earth. Grant us this day
Our daily manna, without which he roams
Through this rough desert retrograde, who most
Toils to advance his steps. As we to each
Pardon the evil done us, pardon thou
Benign, and of our merit take no count.
'Gainst the old adversary prove thou not
Our virtue easily subdu'd; but free
From his incitements and defeat his wiles.
This last petition, dearest Lord! is made
Not for ourselves, since that were needless now,
But for their sakes who after us remain."
Recommendation: Well, obviously, Highly Recommended. If you pace yourself, I think it actually moves more smoothly than the Inferno or the Paradiso -- it lacks the sheer flood of name and story in the other two poems, and likewise the complicated schemes integrating massive numbers of themes.